I consider Sir Rowan Atkinson a consummate genius of subtle comedy. You are, perhaps, most acquainted with his legendary alter-ego, Mr. Bean, whose absurd misadventures have provided millions of laughs for decades. One of my favorite bits occurs when he childishly plays with a nativity scene in a department store.
What’s interesting, though, is that even Mr. Bean’s version of the nativity isn’t as truly strange as the ones we have in our own homes.
The very first nativity scene dates back to 1223 A.D., assembled under the auspices of Italian friar, St. Francis of Assisi. His was a less glamorous nativity by today’s standards, though, as it only included the Christ child, a stable, and animals. The embellishment of modern nativity scenes has always struck an odd chord with me. Despite having ample evidence of the company of strangers that were actually privy to Jesus’s birth, we have somehow decided to include the wise men there, too. I am unsure where that tradition began, but we have stubbornly ignored biblical accuracy for generations and determined to put shepherds and wise men together at the manger for the birth of Christ. This practice is so common and so commercially accepted nowadays that I doubt we consciously recognize its inaccuracy and inconsistency with the biblical account of the Messiah’s Incarnation. You would be hard pressed to even find a nativity set that didn’t include the wise men today. The tradition of incorporating them has stuck and the Bible has been largely ignored as a result.
Now before you rush to judge me the Ebenezer Scrooge of nativity scene and the rest of this little discussion as one long “bah humbug” on your cherished Christmas traditions, do not mistake the following words as condemnation for having the wise men displayed with your shepherds and dummer boys. I do not think that is necessarily a “sinful” practice. I do wish to remind you, though, that the tradition carries zero Scriptural authority. And, likewise, I hope to stir your thoughts about these “wise men” and the scene in which they appear in a fresher, grander, biblical sense.
To begin, I think we have to engage the question of who the wise men were and where they came from. Tradition does a grave disservice to us in this regard with the familiar carol, “We Three Kings,” largely tainting all that we know and believe about these wise men. Taking the carol itself as our guide, we are encouraged to believe that there are three wise men, who are, in fact, kings from “the Orient.” Our traditions do not stop there, as we have even gone so far as to name the wise men, giving them the surnames Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthazar, each with their own history and backstory and personality.
But, however intricately we write their biographies, this is all conjecture. The traditions we hold regarding the wise men have been formulated from centuries of legends and myths surrounding this event. Chances are, everything you have come to believe about them is merely historical guesswork. The Matthean account gives no further details or descriptions other than plainly stating that “wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” We are never given their names, their country of origin, least of all their number. The notion that there were three wise presenting Jesus gifts is inferred solely because of Matthew’s mention of the three gifts given: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Mt 2:11) In all likelihood, this was likely a large caravan of wise men with assistants and servants and aids in tow.
Likewise, the assumption of their position as “kings” is predominantly derived from scattered Old Testament references that talk of kings and nations bowing in homage at his “shining brightness.” (Is 60:3; Ps 72:10–11) Those verses, however, allude to more than just wise men coming and adoring the Christ child. They are predictive of something much bigger and broader than a nativity scene. Besides, the most significant characteristic of these wise men is found as you understand what the term “wise man” means.
The “wise men” moniker in Matthew stems from the Greek word magi or magos, which was a name given to teachers, priests, and sorcerers in various kingdoms, but most frequently among the regions of Babylon and Medo-Persia, making that the most likely area of origin. The magi began as an especially influential school of philosophers and astrologers who were commonly employed by kings and emperors as advisors and counselors. The most notable example of this can be found in the book of Daniel, where in the Greek translation of that book, magi make a number of appearances. (Dan 1:20; 2:27; 5:7, 11, 15) The magi studied the stars and incorporated mysticism, medicine, and religion together in a potpourri of influences in which they were considered experts. The label “magi” was later used in a derogatory or demeaning sense, much like how the titles “illusionist” or “mentalist” are received today. It’s fitting seeing as we derive our words “magic” and “magician” from this Greek term.
But what were these magi doing on this journey to Jerusalem? Our text seemingly gives us the answer to this inquiry, as the magi state their purpose (as they understood it) when they went before Herod the king. “In the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him.’” (Mt 2:1–2) A few inferences can be made from their witness to their mission. Namely, their striking connection between the stunning celestial body and the arrival of the long-promised “king of the Jews.” Perhaps they were familiar with Balaam’s prophecy of a “star and scepter rising out of Israel.” (Num 24:17)
The star itself must have been an exceptionally unusual star with a brilliant effulgence that stirred these stargazers to follow it. Imagining that process is cumbersome as well. How do you suppose these astrologers followed this star? Well, I suppose that depends on what you think the star actually was. Was it merely a poetic device? Was it a conjunction of the planets? Was it a comet or a supernova? Or was it the glory of Jehovah reappeared as in the days of the wilderness wandering? There is a point at which I do not think it matters all that much what the “star of Bethlehem” actually was. Whatever it was, the hand of God was guiding and moving it. The star is a sign not just of the Messiah’s birth but of the Lord’s sovereignty. He suspended stars in their heavenly courses; he can stop them in their tracks.
But when did they make this trek westward? There are several indicators in Matthew’s record, the prevailing one being Herod’s violent decree. (Mt 2:16) The apostle writes that Herod was “deeply disturbed,” not by the star but by the news of a newborn king. (Mt 2:3) He conferences with “all the chief priests and scribes” for enlightenment on this promised king. They, of course, rightly remind their lord that “the Christ’s” coming was foretold long ago. (Mt 2:4–6; cf. Mic 5:2) But Herod’s fears over the Messiah are strictly political. He does not want to lose power or his Roman seat of authority. This king, regardless of age, was a threat. Such is why he conspired to locate the infant king by employing the magi as spies. (Mt 2:7–8) The quicker he is able to silence the news of their Lord’s birth, the longer the Jewish unrest would be stilled.
Herod’s scheme is interrupted, however, as the magi are supernaturally warned “not to go back to Herod.” (Mt 2:12) This, of course, does not sit well with the king. The magi’s actions were a rebellious mockery of his supremacy. Taking the magi’s testimony as his guide, he orders the massacre of “all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under.” (Mt 2:16) This is not out of Herod’s character. He was a ruthless ruler, known for fits of jealous rage and crazed suspicion, so much so that he murdered his own wife and several of his sons. All of this, though, indicates an interval between the Lukan record and the Matthean record. Herod’s decree, the magi’s arrival at Mary’s house (Mt 2:11), and the designation ascribed to the Christ child (Mt 2:9) suggest a timeframe after the initial birth.
This leads us to ask the most significant question in our investigation of these wise men: Why? Why did the magi make this journey? What was their point? Why were they there in Mary’s home? And why did they come bearing gifts? Why are they even included in the biblical canon at all? These, I believe, are pivotal questions to ask, with the answers to each found in not only remembering the primary objective of Matthew’s Gospel but also in recognizing the chief purpose of Jesus’s coming to earth in the first place.
It is useless to try and determine the magi’s names, let alone how many there were. We do not even know if they were kings or if they came from some other position of eastern nobility. But I contend we can know why they came, and why the gifts they brought are mentioned in God’s eternal Word — even if they themselves did not fully understand the significance of what they brought. There has been a bevy of sermons originating from the wise men’s gifts and their supposed christological import. There is a sense in which the gold, frankincense, and myrrh take on larger meaning, with each indicative of Christ’s offices as Prophet, Priest, and King. But such readings are for our own benefit. The magi certainly did not recognize such symbolic significance. In the presentation of their offerings, the magi were were doing as was their custom in paying homage to one they believed would be a very sovereign ruler. They were reverencing a future king, though I am sure they did not grasp what that all entailed. It is not as though they were honoring the Christ child as God’s Incarnate Son. Rather, they were worshiping him as the dignitary they believed he was.
The entire scene wonderfully displays the uncanny sovereign initiative of God in the chubby cherubic form of an infant. Not a single moment of this story was out of his control. His sovereignty was not stunted or stopped by his human frame. He was the infinite infant God, with a manger for a throne and a cape of composed swaddling clothes. Charles Spurgeon describes the scene as “sovereignty encased in robes of mercy.”1 Jesus’s Incarnation was not a reduction but an extension of his glory. He as a baby was not somehow less than God. Even as an infant, he was the fullness of God in a human frame. All the power of divinity resided in the weakness of a weaning child. “The infant Christ,” writes Notre Dame professor Tim O’Malley, “took up our precariousness and dependency, experiencing the frigid chill of a newborn outside his mother’s womb . . . taking up exactly what it means to be human.”
The pericope of the magi confirm that the baby bouncing on Mary’s knee is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He is the promised and predicted Christ, the true and better King, at whose sight one day every knee, saved and unsaved alike, will bow. (Phil 2:10–11; Is 60:3; Ps 72:10–11) The magi, therefore, demonstrate the wideness of God’s mercy, who through his own death, a kingdom of all nations, kindreds, and tongues would be made one. The baby adored by foreign stargazers is such a Savior. He is the One whose mission was to relieve the world of its sin and renew it through death and resurrection. He is the One who came to be like us that might become like him.
Charles Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 16: Sermons Preached and Revised during the Year 1870 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1871), 710.